Puttnam’s speech highlights hollow nature of British politics

Northern Ireland might be a useful pawn, but for how long and with what consequences?

This month a century ago, Sinn Féin negotiators in London were trying to get the measure of a tricky, clever and distracted British prime minister David Lloyd George, who headed a coalition government.

During the Anglo-Irish Treaty negotiations, Lloyd George was keen for a settlement but also had to keep an eye on those who were regularly referred to as “Diehards” in relation to the Ulster unionist cause, some of them veterans of the Irish home rule crisis from 1912-13. Lloyd George told Sinn Féin they “must face facts”: the British government could not force unionists into a united Ireland (“it would only lead to civil war”), but he also accepted the partition of Ireland between six counties of Ulster and southern Ireland was not “logically defensible”.

The only way Arthur Griffith – as leader of the Irish delegation – could attempt to break the logjam was by mooting the possibility of Sinn Féin accepting dominion status for Ireland within the empire if the British would agree to end partition, but Winston Churchill was wary: “we can’t give way on the six counties”, he insisted, “we are not free agents”. This was partly because the government was about to face a censure vote in parliament; at the end of October, three dozen Tory MPs tabled a motion demanding that the government abandon talks with Sinn Féin.

At this point, Lloyd George sought an assurance from Griffith that if a united Ireland was to be offered, the Dáil would have to accept staying within the Commonwealth along with safeguards for Ulster unionists and guarantees for British security. Griffith recorded that if the Irish could give these assurances the prime minister “would go out to smite the Diehards and would fight on the matter to secure essential unity”. Lloyd George also vaguely suggested he would consider resignation, or a general election; in the event, however, he won the censure vote comfortably.


Lloyd George eventually had to find a third way; what became the vague boundary commission proposal

But in parallel, the former leader of the Tories, Andrew Bonar Law, was spearheading a campaign to embolden opposition within the government to Irish unity, telling Lloyd George he could not coerce Ulster and preserve the coalition at the same time. Lloyd George eventually had to find a third way; what became the vague boundary commission proposal to review the Border later.

Lloyd George, through negotiation, skullduggery, bullying and taking advantage of exhaustion, eventually got his settlement. Historian AJP Taylor later heralded this achievement: “a terrible chapter in British history was closed . . . the Irish question had baffled and ruined the greatest statesmen. Lloyd George conjured it out of existence”. Taylor was broadly correct in maintaining, “of course times favoured him. Men were bored with the Irish question.”

It was nonsense, however, that the Irish question had been solved; as Bonar Law stated in the House of Commons after the Treaty was signed – “It is absurd to think we have settled the Irish question.” But there was relief too, as the political advantages to English politicians in using the Irish question to advance English power games had waned and it was hardly a priority for their electorate. Leading “diehard” Lord Salisbury told the House of Lords in 1924 “the average British voter had little interest in and even less understanding of Irish affairs”.

A changed context a century on still allows certain of these themes to fester. In his valedictory address to the House of Lords last week, veteran British filmmaker and Irish resident David Puttnam slammed the endurance of "the display of pig-ignorance towards the fundamentals of Irish history, let alone sensitivity towards the reality of cross-Border relationships". In a parallel intervention, the chairman of Northern Ireland's Conservatives, Alan Dunlop, resigned, claiming there is a growing attitude among Tories in Britain of "cut them loose" when it comes to Ulster unionists. That is hardly surprising and is in keeping with a 2019 survey that found 59 per cent of British Tories would rather see Northern Ireland leave the UK than abandon Brexit.

The reference to Ireland in Puttman's speech was just a small part of a much broader critique of the debasement of British politics

The contemporary “Diehards” have a different battle ground now, and it is Brussels rather than Ulster. Northern Ireland might still be useful as a pawn, but for how long and with what consequences?

The reference to Ireland in Puttman’s speech was just a small part of a much broader critique of the debasement of British politics: “we no longer engage in serious debate – we simply trade assertions”, while Ministers “malevolently twist, turn and posture in parading their prejudices”. Trust and malevolence were issues in Anglo-Irish relations a century ago, but there was also a sense of seriousness about the business of politics and negotiation; an attempt to combine public bellicosity and private diplomacy rather than rely solely on the former; adults engaged in dialogue who would at least attempt to honour an international agreement.

That balance is sorely lacking now, as is any appreciation of the consequences for a stable Northern Ireland, as underlined by Puttman’s lamentations.